GO WHERE YOU WANNA GO
DO WHAT YOU WANNA DO
An Interview with Robyn Bradley-Wallen
It’s summertime as I write this post and that means many different things to folks. For some, it is a chance to have some vacay downtime away from school or work. Perhaps lounging on some sunny beach catching some rays and enjoying the beautiful sound of ocean waves. For others, it might be that sweet smell of barbecue nudging your nose just begging you to take that first delicious bite.
While all those things are enticing and inviting they also can be something that, if you don’t have the ability to drive, you’d have to plan ways to get to and from those blissful events. Well, Planit Patrick knows where you’re coming from my friends. And if you’re not in the mood for bribing one of your driving friends, again, we have the perfect solution. Remember, the object in traveling is to travel. To get where you are going. To get to where the fun is. And to do it as the independent man (or woman) about town that we know you are.
So where am I going with this summer rant? Summer means travel. Summer means you don’t want to waste time on one of those endless Paratransit mobile mixer rides. Summer means enjoying yourself. And although we all love tropical smoothies none of us want to be jostled into feeling like one by the time we eventually make it to our summer shindig.
There is one other thing that I didn’t already mention about what summer means. And it’s a big deal for lots of people. Especially for those of us who use white canes, guide dogs, sunglasses, mobile phones or even a friend’s elbow. Yep, that’s right folks, it’s convention time again. That time of year when we all get together to catch up with all the latest blind organization news, visit the exhibit halls to find out what’s new in tech while collecting all those free tchotchkes from the vendors, and if we’re lucky there will even be some barbecue involved.
I’ve been following a group on Facebook lately because I find myself, along with many of my friends, using ride sharing services more and more. I want to get where I’m going with the least amount of trouble and just as quickly as my fully sighted friends can. Fair is fair, right? So I find myself depending on the generally excellent services of Uber and Lyft more and more all the time. While at the ACB Convention in St. Louis this year I asked a friend of mine, Robyn Bradley Wallen, who moderates the Blind Users of Uber and Lyft Facebook group, to sit down and give us some straight scoop on why these services are a dream come true for so many in the blind community. My interview is below.
Robyn, it was so nice of you to get together with us while at the ACB convention.
No problem. I’m happy to share with everyone.
I understand that you moderate a Facebook group about Uber and Lyft for blind folks. Can you tell us about the group?
OK, I started the group for a couple of reasons. The first time I tried them was in Dallas at the ACB convention. But we tried them here when Lyft was here for 8 days. And then we went to Dallas. I realized then how much it changed the convention for us. Instead of being stuck at the hotel we went everywhere. We went out for seafood, we went for Tex-Mex, we went all over Dallas. We did whatever we wanted and we weren’t stuck at the hotel. There was so much negative publicity then about Uber and Lyft because of the guide dog situation. And unfortunately the bad stuff goes around faster than the good stuff. So I knew that people were avoiding Uber and Lyft because of all those negative things that they heard. And I wanted people to see that Uber and Lyft really can change your life. But I also wanted to start the group because, as you probably know, it’s hard to get answers from Uber and Lyft because it’s all automated. Also they don’t understand the problems we have when you’re blind compared to other people. Because we obviously have different issues. Like finding the car. Or verifying the license plate number. I wanted people to have a place where they could go and share tips with each other. So people could come in and say, “This is what I do…” or “This is how I do it…” And also let them see that even people with service dogs are actually using Uber and Lyft and are really enjoying it. So that was the idea for the whole group. To give people a place where they could share tips. And where people could see how Uber and Lyft could really change their life. To give you a freedom you never had before. And, yeah, you got to work out the problems and you have your bad drivers but I will tell you that (Mark) and I, since we’ve been riding, we’ve done close to 3000 trips. And we’ve probably had 6 bad trips.
PATRICK: So overall much more positive than negative experiences.
ROBYN: Yes, definitely more positive than negative. And we’ve had our negative experiences too. But overall way more good ones than bad ones.
PATRICK: So let me back up for just a moment. You mentioned how Uber and Lyft has changed your life. How has Uber and Lyft changed your life?
ROBYN: Because we don’t have to plan things anymore. You know, we can come, we can go. If we have to go somewhere in a hurry it’s not a problem. Paratransit, here in St. Louis like in other cities, is three days in advance to set up your ride. You can’t schedule your life three days in advance. I haven’t figured out a way to do that, have you? And I will tell you, we’ve done a ton of things with Uber and Lyft. Like we’ve moved Mom into memory care. And we had to take eight trips in one day. We couldn’t have done that on a bus. A taxi, we would have never done it, because it would have taken too long.
PATRICK: You couldn’t have done it with Paratransit either.
ROBYN: No. And so we were able to do what we needed to do. Now, if we suddenly decide we want to go somewhere we can do it. And it just makes a huge difference. That you can come and you can go. We always say it’s like we have a car in our driveway. And the one thing that people are confused about is, yeah, it’s more expensive than a bus but it’s less than a taxi. A lot of the college kids don’t get cars. In fact, we were in Las Vegas and Lyft had a really neat program. If you were a college kid, and as long as you did so much work per week, they would pay your car payment. So some would schedule their classes so that they’d have classes two days a week and drove Lyft for three days a week. That’s what is so nice. Overall our drivers have been really good. And just that freedom to come and go when you want to. For example, we didn’t take the bus to the convention since it is 100 degrees and our bus system here isn’t much to talk about. Taking the bus would taken forever. So we used our Lyft subscription so it only cost $15 and we got to the hotel quickly.
PATRICK: Tell me about the Lyft subscription program. How does that work?
ROBYN: It’s like an invitation only thing. Basically what it is is you pay $200 and it gives you 30 rides up to $15. Any cost over the $15 you pay the difference. Which comes in really handy.
PATRICK: So if you take a $6 trip what happens to the balance?
ROBYN: It doesn’t rollover. And it drops off. But it works out great for us. Especially with our long trips.
PATRICK: Will they be rolling it out to other cities?
ROBYN: Yes, it is going to be rolling out to other cities. There’s a wait list in different cities now and about a month ago we were told it supposed to go nationwide. Right now, it’s the end of June, and they’re only approving a set number of people at a time. So far it’s gone over really well. (Recording on June 29) I try to keep up with the latest information and articles for the Facebook page and I scour the internet all the time.
PATRICK: What else can you tell us about your Facebook page?
ROBYN: I try to post all the different articles and keep stuff on the Facebook page about the different cities. I also put things on there about airports. There’s actually a file section that has a list of all the cities where Uber and Lyft are available. News happens fast these days so I work hard to keep articles and lists updated on the Facebook page. And I know it’s very important to a lot of people so I’ve also put service dog policies on there as well. Anytime I see a relevant article, whether it’s in the states or abroad, I get it out there. That’s because I know there are some people on the page that don’t live in the United States. So I try to do it for everybody. So that people can keep up with what’s going on. And then I scour the sites like Ride Guru or The Ride Share Guy for questions. A lot of times I can find questions on there that I know people have and then I can put those on the page. So it’s a way to make sure people have all the latest information.
PATRICK: I’ve been seeing some news articles about the taxi competition in London. It appears that it’s possible that Uber might be shutting down there. What’s the latest on that front?
ROBYN: Well, they actually just got their license back for a year. But it’s a test. Basically they’re kind of on probation now to see how things work out.
PATRICK: When I was in London a couple of years ago the Uber driver advised us that they did not have to actually transport guide dogs. At the time I thought that was a little strange since the UK is such a progressive country. We didn’t question it but on the positive side we didn’t have any transportation issues either.
ROBYN: And that policy is not true. They actually do have a guide / service dog policy which does say that they have to take them. I try to look at all of that kind of stuff for the Facebook page but the real goal is to give people lots of information so they understand the good, the bad and the ugly. Somebody asked me one day why I posted some of the negative articles and I said because I want people to make informed decisions. I want you to understand that any time you get in a car, I don’t care if it’s a taxi, Paratransit or whatever, you are taking a chance so be smart about it. And do the things you have to do. Like, for example, we have a friend who would always go up to a car, open the door, and talk to the driver. This drives me absolutely nuts. I’ve told her for years what’s to stop them from grabbing you and pulling you in the car? It’s dangerous. And I’ve seen stories where people with service dogs have been refused and they were still holding onto the window as the driver is pulling away. In fact, that’s happened here in St. Louis. You can’t do that. You could get drug with the vehicle. You have to do smart things. I’ll tell people, “Go ahead and let the car go.” File a complaint. But do not go near a car without verifying who you’re dealing with. Do not hold onto a window. Do not do anything that puts you in jeopardy.
PATRICK: You definitely have to be smart about safety.
ROBYN: Exactly. And things happen anywhere because there’s no guarantee. No matter what. Even with background checks. I don’t care if they fingerprint or what. I got fingerprinted for my job too. But no background check is 100%. So you can’t just count on that. You still got to be smart. You have to do the things that protect you. That’s why I put those kinds of articles on the page. I’m not trying to scare people. I’m just trying to make them aware that things can happen.
PATRICK: One of the things I try to do with my Planit Patrick blog is try to spin everything in a positive direction. Even if it is a negative thing.
ROBYN: And there are things you can do. It’s just a matter of being safe and doing the right things.
PATRICK: So let me ask about that positive side of the Uber and Lyft equation. You’ve alluded to some already, but what are some examples of positive experiences that you’ve had using Uber and/or Lyft? What really stands out?
ROBYN: I tell you one of the most positive experiences for Uber and Lyft, and this isn’t just a one time thing, is it forces people to talk to each other. It breaks barriers. This is what I tell people. It’s a good chance for blind people to educate other people. Because I don’t want to necessarily talk about just being blind but if somebody asks me a question I would rather them ask me the question. I’m glad to answer but then I will steer the conversation on to something else.
PATRICK: I’ve often said that folks in the blind community, like us, have our challenges but we have to take those challenges and with every opportunity we need to let people know what it’s like. Because, in general, the sighted world doesn’t have a clue.
ROBYN: Exactly, no they don’t. And if they want to ask, fine. Because it’s the biggest fear that most sighted people have. If you ask a sighted person whether they’d rather be deaf or blind they will all tell you they would rather be deaf. I would tell you that I’d rather be blind than deaf because I would rather be able to communicate with people. We’ve connected with some really interesting people. When we were in Dallas at the convention, like I mentioned, I worked in travel for years, we ended up with a pilot who had just been reassigned down there. He said he didn’t know anybody in Dallas and added that he could choose to sit at home and drink or he could drive Uber and Lyft and could meet people. So we had the best time sharing travel stories.
PATRICK: You know if I could drive, I would do it. It’s a great way to make extra cash. That way I could go on more cruises.
ROBYN: On our way to the convention today we rode with a man who is related to a blind couple we know. I told him that the convention was in town and that he might want to hang out near the hotel because I guarantee that people will need rides at some point. And it’s a good way to get rides and most of the drivers are happy to have that kind of information. Another example is when we moved Mom to assisted living. We had to pick her up, take her to our house, then took her to the doctor, then took her to lunch and then back to our house while we waited for the moving people to move her stuff to her new home. And then get her to her new place. Now, how could we have done all that in a taxi? There’s no way. We didn’t have that much time in a day. And I’m also not that rich. And, honestly, it is so fun to talk to so many different people from so many different places. We’ve even met more of our neighbors by riding Uber and Lyft.
PATRICK: How often do you get the same drivers?
ROBYN: We get them more often now. Not real often but more often than we used to. I’d say we may have gotten the same driver maybe 10 or 12 times. And we get a lot of different drivers from a lot of different places. We’ll ask them where they’re from cause St. Louis is a melting pot for a lot of people from different countries. One day a guy picked us up and he said, “Don’t you recognize me?” And we said, “No??” He said, “I’m Icabon, from the restaurant across the street. I cook for you guys.” Well, that’s what happens when you’re blind. You don’t notice those things. And then we had another gentleman who happened to be friends with our neighbor next door. And he said, “I always see you guys.” So it’s just funny. Here’s what I think is neat. It makes the community smaller. Cause you do meet people and you talk to people and you learn things about people. We’ve had a nurse, a pilot and a driver we had yesterday was a T.S.A. agent at the airport. And here’s something else I’ve noticed. You know normally people are funny about when you’re blind coming over and talking to you. But when you’re sitting in an Uber or Lyft it’s like, they forget. And they’ll start talking to you. I mean about anything. I think cause you’re sitting in their car they feel like they have some control. So they’re not as afraid to ask you questions. Oh, we’ve talked about so many different things. It’s just fun to meet people.
PATRICK: For a person who doesn’t normally use Uber or Lyft, one who doesn’t think it is their cup of tea, what are some tips that you would give them to encourage them to use these services?
ROBYN: I would always encourage them to give it a try. The first thing I would tell them is don’t ever count on the location. That’s the thing everybody’s afraid of, that they won’t pick up at the right location. I don’t care what it says…it says current location…I always go in and type in my location. Because, our house, for example, is next to a side road that’s not really a road. And all the GPS’s send them back to the parking garage behind our house. Which freaks people out at 5:30 in the morning when you’re going to the airport. And what we’ll do is take our phone out and we’ll stand in our driveway because that way they’ll know not to turn down that road. As soon as they notice us standing there they will turn back around. But I always tell people do not count on the “current location” feature in the apps. If you’re really nervous take your GPS with you on the phone. If that makes you feel better that’s fine. I usually tell people let them know what you’re wearing. It’s up to you if you want to tell them to call your name which is what we typically do. And that does work if you are not in a busy place. Like obviously if you’re the only person standing there it’s not a problem. If you’re at a concert venue that gets a little trickier. Then you are going to have your Uber or Lyft stealers cause that happens. Like we were in Vegas near New York New York and that was the hardest place because there were probably 30 people out there waiting. So a lot of times what we will do, we will go to a different hotel where we know where we know an Uber and Lyft stop is and that is less crowded. Because if it is not that far to walk that way we don’t have to deal with the crowds. The other thing is that if you’re really nervous and you are going to see somebody let them know where you are. You can talk to them on the phone. Whatever makes you feel better. And you can share your location in the app. That’s one of the saddest things I see when I see people on the page picking on the people that are afraid because we’re all different. And some people are really good. We go everywhere so it’s not a big deal. But I know everybody’s at a different place. And some people are really terrified. And then people are afraid that something’s going to happen to them. Uber and Lyft have always said, from day one, that if you do not like the looks of the driver you can cancel and let them know. The other thing that I always tell people is that whatever you do, if something does happen, don’t argue with the driver. Because it’s dangerous when people get upset and drive and you don’t want to have them driving and arguing with you. Wait until you get out of the car.
PATRICK: Well, I have to tell you that the information that you posted on the Facebook page regarding where to pick up Uber and Lyft here at the St. Louis airport was spot on. It was absolutely the right place. How can people find you on Facebook? How do they find the group?
ROBYN: It’s Blind Users of Uber and Lyft. And all they have to do is go in there and join and I’ll approve. The only thing is there are some questions on there that I ask people. And the reason I ask people questions, to be honest with you, why I really like people to answer them, is because in the past we’ve had scammers on make it onto the page. They got on and tried to sell things or tried to get other people’s names. So I added the questions when people request to join the group as a way to weed out those kinds of people. I will actually look up your Facebook page if I have to. I will look to see if there are any clues about you. Like is there anything blind related here? I just want to make sure that it is OK to approve someone. That’s why I added the questions. It’s not to keep people out. It’s to make sure that the people who are in the group all have a common interest. And we do actually have some drivers in the group too because there are some drivers who really want to know what to do.
PATRICK: I understand that Uber and Lyft from time to time have special deals. What’s the best way to receive notifications about any deals that they might be able to give you.
ROBYN: A lot of times it’s just downloading the app. Because once they have your email address they’ll send you those offers. Lyft, if you’re a 5 star rider, sometimes will give you 25% off, sometimes 50% off. Like, for example, when Lyft came back to town, for that week Uber offered discounted rides because all of a sudden their competition was back. So that’s a way. And of course you can get referrals from your friends. Uber is not quite as good about discounts as Lyft. With Lyft you’ll get discounts if you’re an established rider. Also, Uber has a promotion where if you eat at certain restaurants and you use the same credit card that you use with Uber to pay for your meal Uber will give you a ride credit.
PATRICK: Do you think it’s a good idea to use both apps and compare each one before accepting a ride?
ROBYN: Always. But, when doing that make sure to leave both apps open until you determine which ride you’re going to choose. If you do close the app and then decide to go back in there’s a good possibility that the price could change. Another thing that I will do to be fair to the drivers is that if my trip is a close trip I will check both apps to see which driver is closer. I’ll choose the closer driver if I’m taking a close trip.
ROBYN: The good thing that I like about Uber and Lyft is that if you have a problem, yeah, you can’t talk to them, that’s the one thing that’s bad, but they are pretty responsive when you have a problem. I’ve always gotten credits on anything I’ve had a problem with. Hopefully we can get more people to try Uber and Lyft because I really think when people try it they’ll find out how free they are. And if you’re in an emergency and you need to get somewhere the drivers and services makes all the difference. It changes people’s lives. And you can even go to the grocery store and buy ice cream. If you take public transportation in the summer you simply don’t buy ice cream. Or your friends call you up and tell you they’re going out for the evening and ask you if you want to come. Now you can say Yes. Uber and Lyft are tools in your toolbox. We have options now.
PATRICK: Thank you, Robyn, for spending a few minutes with us to promote the use of Uber and Lyft by the blind community. Your tips and insights have been very encouraging. And continued success with your Blind Users of Uber and Lyft Facebook group.
ROBYN: It was my pleasure.
To sign up for Robyn’s Blind Users of Uber and Lyft Facebook group follow THIS LINK.